What Makes Wireless Networks Different

Wireless networks are an excellent complement to fixed networks, but they are not a replacment technology. Just as mobile telephones complement fixed-line telephony, wireless LANs complement existing fixed networks by providing mobility to users. Servers and other data center equipment must access data, but the physical location of the server is irrelevant. As long as the servers do not move, they may as well be connected to wires that do not move. At the other end of the spectrum, wireless networks must be designed to cover large areas to accommodate fast-moving clients. Typical 802.11 access points do not cover large areas, and would have a hard time coping with users on rapidly-moving vehicles.

Lack of Physical Boundary

Traditional network security places a great deal of emphasis on physical security of the network components. Data on the network travels over well-defined pathways, usually of copper or fiber, and the network infrastructure is protected by strong physical access control. Equipment is safely locked away in wiring closets, and set up so that it cannot be reconfigured by users. Basic security stems from the (admittedly marginal) security of the physical layer. Although it is possible to tap or redirect signals, physical access control makes it much harder for an intruder to gain surreptitious access to the network.

Wireless networks have a much more open network medium. By definition, the network medium in a wireless network is not a well-defined path consisting of a physical cable, but a radio link with a particular encoding and modulation. Signals can be sent or received by anybody in possession of the radio techniques, which are of course well known because they are open standards. Interception of data is child's play, given that the medium is open to anybody with the right network interface, and the network interface can be purchased for less than $50 at your local consumer electronics store. Careful shopping online may get you cards for half of that.

Furthermore, radio waves tend to travel outside their intended location. There is no abrupt physical boundary of the network medium, and the range at which transmissions can be received can be extended with high-gain antennas on either side. When building a wireless network, you must carefully consider how to secure the connection to prevent unauthorized use, traffic injection, and traffic analysis. With the maturation of wireless protocols, the tools to authenticate wireless users and properly encrypt traffic are now well within reach.

Dynamic Physical Medium

Once a wired network is put in place, it tends to be boring, which is to say, predictable. Once the cables have been put in place, they tend to do the same thing day in and day out. Provided the network has been designed according to the engineering rules laid out in the specification, the network should function as expected. Capacity can be added to a wired network easily by upgrading the switches in the wiring closet.

In contrast, the physical medium on wireless LANs is much more dynamic. Radio waves bounce off objects, penetrate through walls, and can often behave somewhat unpredictably. Radio waves can suffer from a number of propagation problems that may interrupt the radio link, such as multipath interference and shadows. Without a reliable network medium, wireless networks must carefully validate received frames to guard against frame loss. Positive acknowledgment, the tactic used by 802.11, does an excellent job at assuring delivery at some cost to throughput.

Radio links are subject to several additional constraints that fixed networks are not. Because radio spectrum is a relatively scarce resource, it is carefully regulated. Two ways exist to make radio networks go faster. Either more spectrum can be allocated, or the encoding on the link can be made more sensitive so that it packs more data in per unit of time. Additional spectrum allocations are relatively rare, especially for license-free networks. 802.11 networks have kept the bandwidth of a station's radio channel to approximately 30 MHz, while developing vastly improved encoding to improve the speed. Faster coding methods can increase the speed, but do have one potential drawback. Because the faster coding method depends on the receiver to pick out subtle signal differences, much greater signal-to-noise ratios are required. Higher data rates therefore require the station to be located closer to its access point. Table 1-2 shows the standardized physical layers in 802.11 and their respective speeds.

Table 1-2. Comparison of 802.11 physical layers (PHYs)

IEEE standard


Frequency band



1 Mbps 2 Mbps

2.4 GHz

First PHY standard (1997). Featured both frequency-hopping and direct-sequence modulation techniques.


Up to 54 Mbps

5 GHz

Second PHY standard (1999), but products not released until late 2000.


5.5 Mbps 11 Mbps

2.4 GHz

Third PHY standard, but second wave of products. The most common 802.11 equipment as the first edition of this book was written, and the majority of the legacy installed base at the time the second edition was written.


Up to 54 Mbps

2.4 GHz

Fourth PHY standard (2003). Applies the coding techniques of 802.11a for higher speed in the 2.4 GHz band, while retaining backwards compatibility with existing 802.11b networks. The most common technology included with laptops in 2005.

Radio is inherently a broadcast medium. When one station transmits, all other stations must listen. Access points act much like old shared Ethernet hubs in that there is a fixed amount of transmission capacity per access point, and it must be shared by all the attached users. Adding capacity requires that the network administrator add access points while simultaneously reducing the coverage area of existing access points.


Many wireless networks are based on radio waves, which makes the network medium inherently open to interception. Properly protecting radio transmissions on any network is always a concern for protocol designers. 802.11 did not build in much in the way of security protocols. Coping with the inherent unreliability of the wireless medium and mobility required several protocol features to confirm frame delivery, save power, and offer mobility. Security was quite far down the list, and proved inadequate in the early specifications.

Wireless networks must be strongly authenticated to prevent use by unauthorized users, and authenticated connections must be strongly encrypted to prevent traffic interception and injection by unauthorized parties. Technologies that offer strong encryption and authentication have emerged since the first edition of this book, and are a major component of the revisions for the second edition.

Introduction to Wireless Networking

Overview of 802.11 Networks

11 MAC Fundamentals

11 Framing in Detail

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)

User Authentication with 802.1X

11i: Robust Security Networks, TKIP, and CCMP

Management Operations

Contention-Free Service with the PCF

Physical Layer Overview

The Frequency-Hopping (FH) PHY

The Direct Sequence PHYs: DSSS and HR/DSSS (802.11b)

11a and 802.11j: 5-GHz OFDM PHY

11g: The Extended-Rate PHY (ERP)

A Peek Ahead at 802.11n: MIMO-OFDM

11 Hardware

Using 802.11 on Windows

11 on the Macintosh

Using 802.11 on Linux

Using 802.11 Access Points

Logical Wireless Network Architecture

Security Architecture

Site Planning and Project Management

11 Network Analysis

11 Performance Tuning

Conclusions and Predictions

802.11 Wireless Networks The Definitive Guide
802.11 Wireless Networks: The Definitive Guide, Second Edition
ISBN: 0596100523
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2003
Pages: 179
Authors: Matthew Gast

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